Thanks to Kwabena Sarkodie for having me on his podcast, Insights from the Sahara, to discuss all things artificial intelligence and Africa.
While reading this piece, all I could think about was how different Zoom was from other Silicon Valley unicorns-turned public companies that are more well-known. The company registered to go public with a profit after having already turned a profit. Contrast that with companies like Uber which has had one profitable quarter and is pushing for a $120B valuation at its upcoming IPO.
Apparently, the CEO Eric Yuan reimburses the company even for smaller expenses like swag. Contrast that with Evan Spiegel who recorded $900k in security costs when Snap filed to go public. Yuan recorded no other compensation from Zoom, granted Snap was/is a cultural phenomenon and Zoom is far from that.
Further, there’s so much talk about the mercenary culture in Silicon Valley and how startups need to have all sorts of perks in order to retain talent. I’d be really interested to hear what it was about Zoom that enabled it to grow to 1,700 employees despite not having the flashiest office space.
The startup world has built this calculus around growth trumping profitability. Zoom seems to knock against that. I look forward to seeing how it’s IPO impacts the culture across the valley, particularly with its newly minted set of millionaire employees investing some of their capital in fledgling startups.
This can’t be too exciting a development for Japanese e-commerce Rakuten, also the largest investor in newly public Lyft. Rakuten’s CEO Hiroshi Mikitani has talked about his company’s investment in Lyft as more research than competitive move, but with a nearly $3B stake in the company they have got to be itching for Lyft to expand beyond the U.S. and the few Canadian cities where it operates.
The extent to which resource-rich African countries are still placing their bets on oil and gas being the primary driver of their countries’ development induces anxiety. Kurt Davis does an effective job providing cases on Angola, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, and Tanzania and how they’re probably going to find themselves stuck with their current approach to meeting their budgets and developing their countries. He goes on to map out how the thinking of policymakers needs to shift in order for these sort of countries to begin diversifying their economies. As I think about the rapid changes in technology and how software is driving so much change in how the world works, I really hope policymakers wake up.
I’ve seen Shellye Archambeau’s name around and have been intrigued to learn more about her story. Her appearance on Masters of Scale gives a great peak into how she’s navigated her way through Silicon Valley.
What stood out in particular was her telling about a Bible her family has passed down that contains her family tree for ten generations. She credits that Bible along with her family’s culture has given her a sense of her ancestors and where she comes from that. That shaped how she developed her vision.
I’m so big on the importance of knowing where we come from being a mental block for black folks in the Diaspora, but haven’t given a lot of thought to how to make sure those coming after me know where they come from. I will give that some thought.
It’s pretty amazing to see the traction startups are getting, but there’s a long ways to go. Just yesterday, $1.93b in deals were announced globally.
This brings to mind this great conversation between Ian Bremmer and Keyu Jin. China and African countries are not apples-to-apples by any means. There have to be lessons in the China story, though, that can guide countries to chart their own path deliberate, yet accelerated growth. I think making big investments in developing R&D ecosystems in each country’s strong industries is the way forward.
This deal stood out initially because GenNx360 is founded and run by black folks. Then, this morning I thought about this study showing the racial-ethnic disparities in who causes and consumes pollution. The study essentially showed that minorities cause less pollution but consume more of it. The GenNx360 deal feels somewhat symbolic of an effort to take the reins of addressing that.
Africa is projected to have more people at working age than the rest of the world’s population by 2035.
By 2045, artificial intelligence is projected to reach the singularity, where it will be self-improving rapidly rather than being dependent on human inputs.
On their own, these two developments are concerning. For years now, policymakers have braced themselves for what could happen once there’s this critical mass of working age folks in countries like Nigeria and South Africa with no jobs. I’ve heard the term “tinder box” more than I care to.
Artificial intelligence learning on its own is something very hard to envision unless you want to leave that to your pick of scariest movie about AI. All of the advances we see in AI currently are still in the realm of supervised learning where humans input enormous amounts of data. Yet, AI is already able to some pretty incredible things. My Google Home is in constant use in my home for music, information, games, story time, and more.
What happens at the intersection of these two shifts? They’re supposed to happen within a decade of each other. Are African policymakers thinking about curriculum that could prepare their populations to be able to work alongside a robot?
For example, Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa are investing a lot in growing their automotive manufacturing industries. The price of industrial robots is dropping rapidly and could make the development of those industries a lot more realistic. Just this year, Volkswagen and Nissan have launched assembly plants in Rwanda and Kenya respectively. Are the workers at these plants ready for an increased use of robots?
If you’ve seen examples of analysts and policymakers thinking through this issue, I’d appreciate you sending that info my way!
I’m working through “Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey,” and it’s fascinating to learn more about life in Jamaica during colonial times and Garvey’s experience trekking to Europe. While living in London, Garvey got a job at The African Times and Orient Review, a paper published by Dusé Mohamed Ali. The paper carved out a reputation as unabashedly African nationalistic.
Ali was ambitious and launched a number of other initiatives outside of the paper. One of those in 1920 was an attempt to set up an independent bank in Ghana that would compete against European banks in West Africa. The venture wasn’t successful and got me thinking about Nigeria’s United Bank for Africa (UBA). This year, they got approval from Britain’s Prudential Regulation Authority to operate as a wholesale bank in Britain. The bank plans to use this approval facilitate trade finance deals in African markets. In 2018, UBA is the only African bank with this approval. That shouldn’t be the case and is a reminder of how much work there is still to do.
This guest post is by my friend Ifunanya Nwokedi. I’m excited about her starting to put her point of view out in the public square.
While Africa needs a well-educated and experienced graduate to drive change and development, these are not the experiences students receive at universities. In their Quartz article, Seth Traudeu and Keno Omu detail the disconnect between market place skills needed to drive an economy and the experiences African students receive at institutions of higher education. Many African graduates find themselves too inexperienced for the global workplace. They cannot compete internationally, and as a result neither can African economies.
To address this need, corporate employers, African universities and students should build partnerships aimed at developing an experienced African graduate for the 21st century. Traudeau and Omu illustrate that human capital, infrastructure constraints and a disconnect between skills and the market place are major reasons why many African graduates are too inexperienced for the global workplace.
Moreover, many higher education institutions have developed poor learning cultures and lack the infrastructure for knowledge transfer that would prepare African graduates to compete internationally. For example, many students learn through handouts (an abridged version of actual coursework), because a large number of university faculty are on strike – more than 50% of the academic year.
This precise disconnect between the state, higher education institutions and employers is the problem. When university professors are not paid regularly and have to go on strikes to receive attention from state actors, it becomes impossible for these universities to produce graduates capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.
Furthermore, many African ministries of education rarely review academic curricula, if at all, to ensure that they are aligned with skills needed in the market place. Likewise, the decline in state support has led to problems of access, quality and an aging faculty in African universities (Akilagpa Sawyerr, 2004).
In 1995, the World Bank noted that a severe decrease in university funding across many African states has resulted in weak institutional management capacity. For example, the absence of accountability mechanisms has led to the mismanagement of resources and much more. According to an Economist article, administrative leaders at many African universities resort to over-recruitment in order to manage resource constraints. As a result, opening new universities to meet growing demand has worsened the problem.
Institutions of higher learning are supposed to represent communities of scholarship, where ideas are nurtured, refined and critiqued to develop a more accurate conceptualization of the world around us. However, without regular pay, improved infrastructures and increased resources, such an environment ceases to realize its full potential and instead becomes an arena for organized crime, and mismanagement of labor, human capital and resources.
To be clear, it is no longer just a state problem, but one that involves both state and non-state actors such as corporations. Employers can no longer be identified as by-standers, but also as actors that can collaborate with higher education institutions to produce the appropriate type of graduates capable of accelerating African economies and development into the future.
Some of these corporations seem focused on experience rather than highlighting academic degrees during the recruitment process, which undermines the importance of educational achievements. As a result, many African graduates remain at a loss for how to promote themselves and their academic achievement. Nonetheless, some higher education institutions across the continent such as Makerere University have mandatory internship programs while the University of Cape Coast, and the University of Ghana, Legon are among the best in the continent in driving research and innovation.
With evidence of the disconnection between actors involved in reaching effective higher education goals from Sawyer and others, I insist that higher education institutions should assess their goals and develop a more comprehensive plan to better ensure that they provide educational experiences that can translate into work experience for African students.
African universities must take steps to build partnerships with corporate leaders to meet the demand and supply needs of the marketplace by creating opportunities for students to gain skills during their academic careers. For example, students could conduct and present their research projects at conferences as part of graduation requirements, industries could support universities by building libraries and labs that mirror the workplace; and universities could create knowledge transfer activities that engage students and faculty. The African students could also find effective ways to demand their right to quality education, working classrooms and labs that meet international standards and speak out when leaders deprioritize their needs.